War Bridles Revisited

Never put a rope halter on an unbroken colt under any circumstances whatever.
They have caused more horses to hurt or kill themselves,
than would pay for twice the cost of all the leather halters
that have ever been needed for the purpose of haltering colts.
It is almost impossible to break a colt that is very wild with a rope halter,
without having him
and throw himself,
and thus endanger his life;
and I will tell you why.
It is just as natural for a horse
to try to get his head out of anything that hurts it,
or feels unpleasant,
as it would be for you to try to get your hand out of a fire.
The cords of the rope are hard and cutting;
this makes him raise his head and draw on it,
and as soon as he pulls, the slip noose
(the way rope halters are always made)
tightens, and pinches his nose,
and then he will struggle for life,
until, perchance, he throws himself;
and who would have his horse throw himself,
and run the risk of breaking his neck,
rather than pay the price of a leather halter.
But this is not the worst.
A horse that has once pulled on his halter,
can never be as well broke
as one that has never pulled at all.

Kincaid, P. R.; Stutzman, John J. (2011-12-20).
The Arabian Art of Taming and Training Wild & Vicious Horses
(Kindle Locations 154-162). . Kindle Edition. Published 1856

I have yet to succeed in my search for a replacement for my US Army style longeing caveson, a style that was readily available twenty years ago. I like this type of caveson because it has a thick felt padded noseband and a cheek strap. The felt lined noseband is wide, soft, flexible, and absorbent, keeping the horse’s nose dry and comfortable. It can be adjusted snugly enough that it will not slip and the cheek straps add an extra measure of safety, preventing the straps of the headstall from sliding into the horse’s eye if the horse should get upset and pull. With Dee rings on the center and sides of the noseband, it can be used for ground driving as well as longing. It is forgiving enough to be adjusted so as not to interfere with the bit, making for an easy transition to bitted work.

Looking on the worldwide internet for what was available instead has made me seriously wonder about horse training fads. The best of the lot are:

• English style cavesons usually have a heavy brass 3-part hinged nosepiece
• Spanish style cavesons also have metal in their nosebands but may use cable, bicycle chains, or the like instead of hinged plates

Most of these are made of leather, and some versions offer cheek straps while others do not. Regardless, the heavy hinged English noseband does not adapt to the many subtle differences in the shapes of horses’ heads and adjusting it tightly enough to keep it in place makes pressure points on the horse’s nose and jaw. Depending on the size and shape of the horse’s nose, some may even press the insides of the horse’s cheeks in between their back teeth, which has to make the horse miserable. Cable and chain reinforced nosebands are a little more adaptable to differently shaped horse heads, but are still unduly harsh. I am not interested in ripping my horse’s nose off regardless of how much they might act up.

• Cheap nylon cavesons with fleece nosebands, are just that: cheap

Most are barely modified halters lacking cheek straps and occasionally even brow bands. The synthetic fleece interferes with a snug fit at best, tends to ball up and compact with use leaving the horse sweaty and itchy while the nylon strapping easily slides about into the horse’s eyes and only gets stiffer and rougher on the horse’s skin as it gets sweaty. They are not worth even their cheap price as an uncomfortable horse soon becomes irritable and resentful of their rider’s demands.

I found a number of other peculiar offerings totally unsuited for schooling your horse.

• longeing attachments, straps that buckle onto the bit, either over the nose or under the chin, with a centered dee-ring to attach the longe line

The strap hangs loosely with the weight of the longe line a constant pull on the bit. Using it with a curb bit twists and torques the bit in the horse’s mouth, disrupting their way of going at best, and at worst giving enough leverage to break a horse’s jaw if they act up. Any time there is pull on both sides of a snaffle bit it turns into a nut-cracker, compressing the horse’s jaw and poking into either the roof of their mouth if it is attached below the jaws or their tongue their if it is attached above the nose. Just the weight of the line is enough to twist the bit and pull the horse’s head to one side. The person on the other end has no way to communicate with the horse other than a mighty yank on the longe line. Seriously NOT comfortable or effective at best, painful and capable of doing lasting harm at worst.

• A gag line that attaches to one side of the bit, runs over the horse’s poll, and out through the other side of the bit.

Just the weight of the longe line jams the bit up into the horse’s teeth, pinches their lips, puts pressure on the poll compressing the sensitive nerves on the top of the head, and pulls the horse’s head to the outside. The person on the other end once again has no way to communicate with the horse other than a mighty yank on the longe line. There is also the drawback of a complete inability to change directions without stopping and redoing the entire setup. Regardless, this gadget is still seriously NOT comfortable or effective at best, painful and capable of doing lasting harm at worst.

Having the above as the only options available gave me a glimpse of why longeing has earned a bad reputation of late. It is nearly impossible to get good results with such poorly designed equipment even if you already know what you are doing. Then I decided to take a look at what gear was popular, what equipment people were using to train their horses instead of the caveson.

• ‘Horsemanship’ halters made of hard cord doubled and carefully knotted to press on the delicate nerves of the horse’s face and poll with heavy cotton rope attached under the jaw are plentiful.

All variations on this kind of headgear are alike in the weight of the rope causing the horse relentless pain from the hard knotted cords while forcing their head to outside. The person on the other end of the line still has no way to communicate with the horse other than a mighty yank. Once again, people have come up with a gadget that manages to be both pointlessly painful and counterproductive.

Pursuing the next few offerings took me into the mysterious realms of the ‘bitless bridle’. These contraptions are touted as humane alternatives to the alleged horrors of using a bit. I was curious about what attracted people to them, so I found myself wandering into a few bitless bridle forums. I kept reading in a sort of appalled fascination as people enthused about how:

• They could really ‘hold’ their horse with a bitless bridle but needed to know how to get the dent out of the horse’s nose after a ride

and how

• much more effective their bitless bridles were once they lined them with short stiff bristles from a brush or the nubs from curry comb

so I should not have been surprised that:

•  horsemanship halters are discussed in like terms,of how many and how large and where their knots are placed.

I then proceeded to make myself thoroughly unpopular (again) by pointing out that the fallacy of assuming that if a piece of headgear does not go in the horse’s mouth, it does not hurt. In actual practice both ‘bitless bridles’ and ‘horsemanship’ halters are designed with the Skinneristic assumption that horse training requires hurting the animal to make them react. This type of headgear is designed to exert intense, relentless, inescapable, pressure on the most delicate and sensitive parts of the horse’s head with the least effort on the part of the human jerking on the reins. It also interferes with the horse’s proprioreception, sight, and breathing. The horse has neither warning nor escape from the abuse. Either the rope/reins are swinging slackly or they are jerked painfully tight.


I went on to say that growing up in New Mexico in the 50’s and 60’s, before the pick-up became ubiquitous and horses were still essential working partners on the ranch, I saw local cowboys that were at least honest enough to call the contraption a war bridle. They used it to immobilize untrained horses so that they would hold still long enough to be saddled and busted by the bronc riders. In its simplest form, a horse was roped, choked down with the lariat, and then a sliding loop was run around the horse’s nose and back through the original loop around the horses neck. Any move the horse made was quickly countered by jerking the loops tight, shutting down the horse’s nostrils so they could not breath, choking their necks so they could not swallow, and causing blinding pain by compressing the nerves of the poll, nose, and jaws. Many horses were injured in the process and even those that survived it often ended up with permanent nerve damage, and had floppy ears, slack lips, and lazy eyelids for the rest of their lives. It was no secret that the reason such horses were head shy and hard to handle was because they had been abused.

Eventually I found myself dismissed from one forum when the Bitless Mistress informed me that she did not like all this talk about the superficial facial nerves, pain, and such. My reply stating that I totally understood her position, knowing that if she looked at how her gear actually worked, she would have to abandon her righteous claims to a superior humanity and might have to actually learn something did not endear me to her. I was blunt, even insulting, because I find the self-serving gross and willful deception on the part of marketers and trainers and the wide spread public refusal to call them on it so much worse than the blatant and callous cruelty of the cowboy. Although the concept of communication, cooperation, and connection between horse and rider was nowhere in the picture when the cowboys were busting broncos with a war bridle, at least the cowboy had a job for the horse, and most western horses managed to figure out their jobs and get them done despite their riders.

The war bridle, in all its many guises, was and is a crude and cruel instrument. That this type of gear is now pawned off on a gullible public as humane should not baffle me, but it does. There is no excuse for such cruelty when riding strictly for pleasure or show. Nearly fifty years ago, John Richard Young wrote:

…as a general rule,
With most horses
We shall get much better results
If we quit thinking in terms of force
And concentrate on
Clearly conveying to the animals understanding
what we wish him to do.
If we can train ourselves to do this,
Eventually our whole idea
Of what skilled horsemanship is
Will undergo a radical change;
The results we achieve
Will convince us beyond any doubt.
For in ultimate results,
There is no parity between the two methods.
A horse strong-armed into obedience
Is nothing but an unwilling slave
And his whole manner shows it.
But a horse schooled with patience,
And good humor
Develops into a comrade
Will do to almost anything you ask
Because you have built up his confidence in you.

Pg 186-7 Schooling for Young Riders by JRY

I had hopes that a sufficiency of people would see beyond training techniques reminiscent of a Medieval Inquisition, refusing tools and ideas that are so deeply rooted in a twisted and sadistic need to dominate and inflict suffering on others. Instead, such callous, inventive, and widespread abuse of the horse is so unquestioningly justified and well-marketed nowadays that it appears that only way I am going to be able to have a humane and functional longeing caveson is to find a leather-worker willing to custom make one for me.

That is a truly sorry reflection on the state of humans and horsemanship in the 21st century. The popularized interpretation of negative reinforcement as an insistence that pain is not just an appropriate, but is an essential training tool, is dangerously pervasive nowadays. Far too many apparently incomprehensible, ostensibly incurable, disorders of the modern horse can be simply and effectively diagnosed by taking a look at the gear hung on their heads and the way their trainer handles the ropes! The rampant hypocrisy and near total obliviousness to the genuine welfare of the horse in the bitless/horsemanship halter forums nowadays arises out off a fundamentally perverse mindset that appears to be able to deny, rationalize, and defend an appalling degree and variety of abuse, mostly in the name of behavioral modification.

click for thoughts on bits and for  more on how horses express pain


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